Many years ago my lovely, step-aunt Betty gave me a pillowcase full of vintage linens that she had bought from an antique shop for Christmas, because she knew that my husband and I love antiques and that we were creating a victorian feel for our home (I’m talking true Victorian here, not tea party kitsch, steam punk, or pseudo goth). We pulled them all out and exclaimed over the beautiful cutwork and delicate stitchery, and then after Christmas they went into a box in our laundry room and proceeded to stay there untouched for years.
This year as I reorganized the laundry room I finally wondered why I had all these beautiful things and was not using them. It is not as if they were heirlooms from my family that I wanted to preserve for generations. They were a gift, and were meant to be loved and shared with others to make our lives more beautiful. And so I brought them out and cleaned them up and began to use them with my grandmother’s desert rose china, and the new crystal that my husband and I gave ourselves for Christmas because we had broken the few wineglasses we had. And I realized two things. The first realization is that I love vintage linens. I love the whole process of caring for them, and using them, and enjoying them. And the second realization is I have become a complete girly-girl.
When Jim and I got married, we laughed at the thought of registering. We were more interested in hardware stores than china stores. Plates from Target seemed just fine for us as long as they held food, and considering how hard I am on breakable things, at least they were easy to replace. I completely blame my mother for girlifying me. For the last couple of years she has been giving me boxes of china, silver tea sets, and the like (mostly to make more space in her own house, I think). Last year we started using them in pure self defense (because they were taking over the entire kitchen and garage) thinking we would break them all soon enough. And then it happened, I was suddenly and irrevocably hooked. sigh…
And so, about the vintage linens. To clean them I either had wash them or use my washer on it’s low agitation/delicate cycle. I use a small amount of Woolite in cold water, for the wash and then if necessary I add a small amount of Clorox color safe bleach (peroxide based). I always hang them dry on plastic hangers. Dryers are really hard on clothes in general so anything I care about I tend to hang dry. One wash with this treatment took the linens from yellow to white and took out all the stains except the worst and most persistent.
For those persistent stains I am going to try a treatment that many websites recommend. You dampen the stain area with water first. Then you mix salt and lemon juice together and apply to the area of the stain and place outside on the grass in the sun for several hours to sun bleach. I will document this process as I do it.
After I wash the linens and before I store them, I iron them so that I can pull them out and use them quickly with minimal work. I prefer to iron linens when they are slightly damp because they get a smoother more polished finish.
I have several tools that I use when I am ironing. I love Niagra non-aerosol spray starch (the aerosol kind is evil, hard to use, and will leave spots on clothes and linens, just say NO!). I also mix up a spray bottle with filtered water to which I have added a few drops of essential oil of lavender. I used an empty Niagra bottle for the lavender water which worked out perfectly because it is a very attractive heavy weight bottle with an easily removed label and an excellent non clogging sprayer. In addition to these I like to have a regular bottle of drinking water close at hand so I can both take a sip if I get hot from the iron and refill the iron when it runs out of water.
I always iron linens on the highest steam setting. Anything that is linen or cotton (unless extremely fragile) responds better to high heat and steam. If I am working with a non natural fabric, then I keep the heat low and rely on spraying the lavender water to help create steam. I usually only use the lavender water on napkins and tablecloths, but I will add a little starch to place mats and runners for a smoother more polished finish. Starch will yellow linens over time, and so I don’t use it on anything that I am storing for a long period, only on the pieces I use frequently. Also, I do not press folds into my napkins with the iron because this can weaken the fibers along the fold, but rather press them flat and then hand fold them and gently press the folds in with my fingers.
For linen storage, the optimal container is an acid free cardboard box with acid free tissue. You can buy kits at the container store or from www.lightimpressionsdirect.com for this kind of storage, and I use it for my family’s prizewinning quilts and the really special things. For my frequent use linens I use plastic storage boxes lined with acid free tissue. Storing linens in plastic can develop moisture and mold problems and so I leave the linens out for several hours after ironing to make sure they are completely dry. I also make small sachets of lavender in cheese cloth to add into the boxes both for sent and to repel insects. Just cut a circle fine woven cheese cloth, add a teaspoon of lavender blossoms, and then use a scrap of ribbon to tie it closed.
When I get ready to use the linens, they usually come out of the box ready to go on the table. I may have to press a few fold marks out of table cloths, but it is usually pretty minor. And so they come out in all their glory, and give a wonderful grace and old world elegance to any meal.